Saturday, November 30, 2013

Song of the day

"Open", by The Necks.

I am not even going to try to give you a YouTube clip or Soundcloud link for this. First, nobody in their right mind is going to sit in front of a computer or on a phone for 68 minutes listening to a piece of music. Secondly, "Open" is such a lovely package that it deserves to be absorbed as intended: take the disc out of the cardboard sleeve, load it into your high-end audiophile compact disc player, draw the curtains, settle into your comfy chair, close your eyes, and let it wash over you.

For one thing, it's one of the nicest CD covers I have ever seen. The grey and yellow combination is a winner, the simplicity of the design is typical of the Necks' design crew, and as you open the gatefold sleeve you realise that you are revealing, letter by letter, the name of the record. As in: "open" starts to appear as you "open" the disc. (And the "N" on the back cover, as well as being the last letter of "open", is also the first letter of "Necks". See what they did there?)

As for the music, it is notable in a couple of respects: at 68 minutes, it is the longest single piece of music they have released. In addition, in taking a step away from the wall-of-sound elements of their more recent recordings and shows (at least those of my experience), they have in a sense gone back to the basics of their very first record as The Necks, "Sex" (still one of my favourite Necks pieces, and one of the few "non-mainstream" records in my collection that impresses all who listen to it) (which probably negates the idea of it being "non-mainstream"). But rather than just retread that idea (as if they would ever do that), they have infused it with elements of everything they have learnt throughout their long and winding musical adventure together.

The best thing about it for me, though, is how, around the 45-minute mark, it puts me in mind of "1/1", from Brian Eno's "Ambient 1: Music For Airports", one of my all-time favourite pieces of music. The odd thing about this, though, is that I only get that sense if I listen to it all the way through: I tried to recreate it just by playing that passage and, in a nutshell, I got nothin'. I couldn't even tell I was listening to the right section of the track. What's with that? I suppose after 45 minutes of close listening you get in a kind of zone. "Open" is my kind of zone.

It would make an ideal Christmas present.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Jackie oh!

It was time to introduce our children to the world of Jackie Chan. (It was probably past time, actually. But one earlier attempt foundered on the rocks of intimate human relations a few minutes in.)

Limited by both our lack of knowledge and the truncated range available at the local Video Ezy, we have thus far run through an unrepresentative, possibly entirely misguided selection. But at least he is now known in our house as more than just one of the voices in the "Kung Fu Panda" films. And that is an important component of a boy's education.

What have we seen so far?

"Drunkenmaster II". This is comedy martial arts genius. The pure Hong Kong films seem to be more insane than those involving Hollywood: presumably because the "Jackie Chan does his own stunts" ethos doesn't get strapped into an OH&S straightjacket.

"Shanghai Noon". At the opposite end of the spectrum from "Drunkenmaster II": this film is an utter, utter crock, and highly unworthy of Jackie Chan's talent. Also, it pales in comparison Gore Verbinski's "The Lone Ranger" (or even "Rango"). Avoid. What? There's a sequel?? I would rather eat my shoe.

"Rumble In The Bronx". From memory, this was Jackie's first East Meets West venture. It struggles to find its feet for a while, and is heavy on the violence (and reeks of the 1980s: the whole thing could almost be an extended cut of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video, which is kind of weird seeing it was made in 1995), but is worth sitting through for the unbroken madness of the final 20 minutes. Italian Sports Car vs Hovercraft: what's not to like?

"Rush Hour". In its own way a sequel to "Shanghai Noon" (even referencing the "John Wayne / Chon Wang" gag from that movie) but this time they got the balance right between the comedy and the martial arts.

"Rush Hour 2". More of the same only slightly less so. But the team-up of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker is a good one. I don't think I would want to sit through the third one, though.

There are two or three more actual Hong Kong Jackie Chan movies (including "First Strike") that we can borrow, but if anyone has some recommendations the email address is over there on the right.

Essay of the day

"Swinging Modern Sounds #44: And Another Day", by Rick Moody.

You read a lot of writing about music. A lot of what you read is hack work; much of it is very good, very readable, very informative, but hack work still. Somebody doing a job (not necessarily a paid job). You think you to yourself, I could do that. You give it a try. You hone your craft on your own little island for ten years. You think you might be getting somewhere. You're not going to get yourself quoted, or talked about, but maybe you have come up with one or two minor insights about the music you listen to. Maybe you have encouraged one or two people to check out something they wouldn't otherwise have investigated. Maybe they even liked what they heard. If nothing else, it has helped you collect your thoughts and impressions in a way that at least forces you to think about what you are listening to.

And then you read something like Jonathan Lethem's book on Talking Heads' "Fear of Music".

Or this stunning essay by Rick Moody on Bowie's "The Next Day".

And you wonder why you bother.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Song of the day

"Marathon", by The Cleaners From Venus.

In the years 1979 to 1981, by which time I was seriously absorbing music from outside the mainstream, it was compulsory for every album coming out of England to contain at least one song that referenced the bourgeoisie. Of course, I had no idea who or what the bourgeoisie was, but attentive reading of the NME gave me an understanding that they, along with Margaret Thatcher, were the hated enemy.

We didn't have much exposure to the Class Struggle at Fish Creek, but watching the Ken Loach documentary "The Spirit of '45" a couple of weeks ago gave me a real sense of why it was a struggle worth fighting for, how it was won, by the Attlee/Bevin Labour government, after the Second World War, and how that victory was stripped away 35 years later under Thatcher. (And yes, I am aware that Loach's film was telling one side of the story, and that an equally cogent, well-constructed narrative could be told from the other side of the barricades; and I am also aware that Britain in the 1970s couldn't be said to have been any sort of Workers' Paradise; but I know where my own sympathies lie.)

"Marathon", by The Cleaners From Venus, was one bourgeoisie-referencing song that got away. Mainly because The Cleaners were one band that got away. Not just from me, I suspect. The Cleaners were the archetypal bedroom band. They put out hand-painted limited-run cassette releases. (This was surely an influence on the likes of Calvin Johnson and The Cannanes, and so in a real sense my world would not have existed without them.) In the beginning, whence this song springs, they were Martin Newell and Lol Elliott. Newell, with and without Elliott, released album after album (he is still doing it) of perfectly crafted English pop songs, psychedelia-tinged but laced with the acrid aftertaste of punk.

Last year Captured Tracks embarked on a Cleaners From Venus reissue campaign, and you can now access facsimiles of the first six albums plus a collection of "outtakes" (hard to know what that even means in this context, as their tapes were never really "available", at least in any quantity, in the first place). It is some of the best music you have never heard. If you could imagine a band with the songwriting genius of XTC combined with the aural aesthetic of Swell Maps you are not far off the mark.

They never sought success, but perhaps, at this late date, success may have found them. Here's hoping.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Song of the day

"Molten Gold", by The Chills.

While we were all looking the other way, Martin Phillipps uploaded a new Chills song onto iTunes. Some of us had, reluctantly, stopped holding our breath for the long- and often-promised "new Chills material" to appear. The Chills have long been a big part of my life, and I have frequently, silently (as well as, I seem to recall, on these pages) wished Phillipps well (even if only for the very selfish reason that I wanted him to keep making music). But nobody can wait forever.

Which makes the appearance of this new song not so much a surprise as the trigger for a sensation like that of having one of your long-dead parents suddenly walk around the corner and stare you in the face. I think the expression may be "cognitive dissonance": this can't be happening, and yet here it is.

Its mere existence, then, is a cause for celebration, and has fanned a long-dormant flame. It would be tempting to hail the song itself, of course, as a masterpiece, a stunning return to form, a song worth waiting nine years for. Whereas in fact (well, in my opinion) what it is is just another Chills song. But before you switch off, think about what that means: in a world where there are too few songs by one of his generation's most gifted songwriters, the addition of even one new song is no small thing. Martin Phillipps, whatever else has been going on in his life, has still got his own particular "it".

"Molten Gold" sounds tentative: there are no real risks being taken (the electric fiddle carrying the main melody line is new -- although it is really doing the same work as the expensive keyboards that were all over the group's records during their major-label phase), he is not pushing any envelopes or making any Major Statements. If you wanted to place it within the Chills' songbook, it is more "Look For The Good In Others" than "Great Escape". It doesn't precisely sound like a demo but there is something underworked, something homespun about it. (It might also be suggestive of someone who has come to terms with the idea that a song that sounds like it came out of Dunedin is a song worth doing; but that might just be me drifting into the field of amateur psychoanalysis.)

And here is where it gets speculative, taking us to a place that all Chills fans will recognise: that place called "What Next?". If "Molten Gold" is the sound of Martin Phillipps figuring out if he can still do this, well, Martin, the resounding answer must be "Yes You Can". If Phillipps, who appears to be surrounded now by a solid group of sympathetic musicians, can draw some momentum from this one song, who knows, we might be on the verge of an unexpected, thoroughly well deserved, and (for me, but I'm sure not only for me) very exciting second act.

On the other hand, if it does turn out to be a one-off, and we are held in suspense for another however many years, well, Martin, whenever that might be, I will still be here waiting for you. And in the meantime we have this song to listen to. So, y'know, uh, thanks.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Hypothetical mixtape: November 2012

It is now November 2013. This list relates to November 2012.

I should probably give up.

And yet ...

Here we go yet again. A month dedicated, as it turns out, to dance.

1. "Hippo Mancy", by Tom Janusch. The entire 1970s disco scene displayed in miniature. Like a snow dome. Groovy.

2. "Contours Sway", by Larry Gus. DFA signing (now with an album out) with the ingenious approach of taking an actual (or fake: who can tell these days?) disco number and chopping and screwing it until it sounds like a song trapped in a blender. (A compliment.)

3. "I'm A Man (full length version)", by Macho. Italo disco. Imagine a mid-point, perhaps, between Earth Wind and Fire and "I Feel Love". Or, y'know, don't. Listen to this instead. You weren't really planning on doing anything else for the next 18 minutes.

4. "I Love America", by Patrick Juvet. One thing about disco is, if you only knew it from the songs they played on the radio, you really did have a skewed and unflattering view of it. They say that size doesn't matter. They are wrong. Twelve inches is disco's true measure. Reducing something like "I Love America" to three or four minutes really negates the point of the song and leaves the young and impressionable listener (viz., me) having strongly negative views of what is, in its 12-inch iteration, as fine a song as the disco era came up with. (Well, almost.) It's like going down a rabbit hole from which you can never escape. For 13 minutes, anyway.

5. "I Wanna Give You Tomorrow (disco version)", by Benny Troy. I don't care who you are, there will always be disco songs that you haven't heard before. Benny Troy comes on as a slightly restless/anxious Barry White. Oh those blessed strings. From 1975, when things were more fresh, new, exciting and (maybe) innocent.

6. "Dreaming A Dream (Goes Dancin)", by Crown Heights Affair.  I think you can probably guess what is going on here.

7. "Stardance", by John Forde. Many of the finest exponents of disco did not hail from England. (I'm not sure where you would place the Bee Gees vis a vis that last statement.) John Forde hailed from England. The word "cosmic" can't help but come to mind: this song seems to have its head in the stratosphere and its feet on the dancefloor. Or: did John Forde invent prog-disco?

8. "Ain't No Time For Tears (Sacred Rhythm Version)", by Ashra. Not disco per se, but this does share the idea of strength through repetition. And rhythm. What we have here is Joe Claussell taking some well schmick Manuel Gottsching guitar triangulations and superimposing them onto a salsa beat. And the result is insane. Hola!

9. "Keep It Together (Factory Floor Remix)", by How To Destroy Angels. As with "Are 'Friends' Electric?", say, this remix, if you put it out on the dance floor, might clear half the patrons, but those who remain will be pogoing their little hearts out. There is something very end-of-the-seventies Sheffield about Factory Floor which I find very appealing. They are, on the face of things, cold and industrial, but it is done with a deft hand that draws you in. As we sit here now, they have an album out. On DFA.

10.  "We Came To (house mix)", by The Crystal Ark. Did somebody mention DFA? It is disappointing that last year's Crystal Ark album didn't get more traction than it did. Gavin Russom's homemade synths and Viva Ruiz's vocals are a good pairing, and the album is a lot more interesting, and varied, than most people seem to have assumed it would be. This is a different mix of a song from the album. It may not be the long-awaited return of Black Leotard Front, but it's all good.

Mistah Lou, he dead.

I don't really know what to say about the death of Lou Reed, but it might seem a bit weird if I don't say anything at all, so here goes.

As you know, Lou and I didn't always see eye to eye. I don't know what it was about him that rubbed me up the wrong way, but something did, and I am certain that that is exactly how he would have wanted it. That was his particular, uh, charm.

That said, there is a hole in the world as I sit here typing this. The last time I was conscious of feeling like that was when Burroughs died. Both of them were figures that towered, much larger than life, across the (or "a") cultural landscape. Their shadows, already long, continue to lengthen.

In short: if Lou Reed had never been born, I would be living in a world much different from this one, and I can't imagine it would be a world that I would prefer to live in.

No Lou Reed = no Velvet Underground. No Velvet Underground = no Television. No Ramones. No British punk. No Feelies. No Forced Exposure. (Probably no Creem.) No Chills. No Bats. No Clean. No Belle and Sebastian. No Beat Happening. No Black Flag. No Birthday Party. No Spacemen 3. No Jonathan Richman. Not exactly no David Bowie, but a different David Bowie, one who would not have made the Berlin trilogy. No Neu!. (Is it too much of a stretch to say no Kraftwerk?) And if you take all of them out of the picture, it is curious to wonder what today's music might sound like. No Moon Duo. No Real Estate. No Woods. No ...